Black Gold Rush
For nearly 100 years in East Tennessee, coal mining was a way of life--and death.
By Jesse Fox Mayshark
MAY 29, 2000: Jacob Vowell was lying in the damp darkness, straining to breathe. His brother Elbert was next to him. All around them were other men and boys, most of them dead. Jacob and Elbert would die soon too, and they knew it. By the light of an oil lamp that was competing with his own lungs for what little oxygen was left, Jacob wrote a letter to his wife and children.
"Ellen, darling, goodby for us both. Elbert said the Lord has saved him. Do the best you can with the children. We are all praying for air to support us, but it is getting so bad without any air. Horace, Elbert said for you to wear his shoes and clothing. It is now 1/2 past 1. Powell Harmon's watch is in Andy Woods hand.
"Ellen, I want you to live right and come to heaven. Raise the children the best you can.
"Oh how I wish to be with you. Good Bye all of you, Good Bye. Bury me and Elbert in the same grave by little Eddy. Goodbye Ellen. Goodbye Lily. Goodby Jimmy. Goodby Horace. Is 25 minutes after Two. There is a few of us alive yet.
"Jake and Elbert.
"Oh God for one more breath. Ellen remember me for as long as you live. Goodbye darling."
Some of the other men had written notes too, which would be found when rescue crews finally dug through to unearth the 184 bodies trapped deep inside an underground shaft. One of the dead, Powell Harmon, left his sons with a simple admonition: "My boys, never work in the coal mines."
The advice may have been well intended, but it wasn't all that realistic. In the small towns of Anderson County at the turn of the 20th century, Harmon's sons wouldn't have had much choice. The Fraterville explosion of 1902, which happened 98 years ago this month, was among the worst disasters in the history of American coal mining (it actually ranks eighth in body count). But it wasn't enough to slow down an industry working full-tilt to fuel the railroads, steel mills and iron works of booming cities from Knoxville to Pittsburgh to Chicago.
Coal mining is central to Appalachian history from the Reconstruction era onward. It's visible enough if you drive through the mountains of eastern Kentucky or West Virginia, where trucks and trains loaded with black rock still leave clouds of grimy dust trailing behind them. In Tennessee, though, it's easy to overlook. Coal never had the broad economic and political force here that it did in neighboring states. In Anderson County today, where employment opportunities have names like "Neutron Spallation Project," coal seems a relic of the pre-nuclear age. But for nearly a century in a dozen counties north and west of Knoxville, King Coal ruled.
It made fortunes that helped build East Tennessee as an industrial center, drew thousands of settlers to the Cumberland Mountains, and provided jobs for generations of men. In its wake, the industry also left the landscape scarred, company towns adrift, and the air and water threatened. With a colorful past, a problematic present, and an unpromising future, coal mining in East Tennessee presents a knotty narrative.
Charles "Boomer" Winfrey looks up from a house salad at a table in the back of Lake City's well-worn Cottage Restaurant and smiles. "Welcome to Coal Creek," he says, his basso voice living up to his nickname. "At least, this used to be called Coal Creek. Tennessee coal mining goes back as far historically as it does in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. Maybe farther."
Winfrey knows his coal. A large, genial man with a raffish laugh, he grew up in Lake City and earned a geology degree at the University of Tennessee. After a short stint working for zinc companies in Jefferson County, he joined the fledgling activist group Save Our Cumberland Mountains as staff geologist, where he was a key player in the strip mining battles of the '70s. Since the early 1980s, he's worked as a reporter and editor at local newspapers, with ample opportunity to cover what remains of the coal industry (he currently oversees the LaFollette Press).
On a driving tour of old mine sites in Anderson and Campbell counties, Winfrey points out the geology that produced Tennessee's stock of fossil fuel. "The Pennsylvanian period is when the coal seams formed," he explains, navigating his silver Plymouth Voyager through the meandering gravel roads of the Royal Blue wildlife management area, a partially reclaimed strip mine site outside Caryville.
The Pennsylvanian period started about 320 million years ago, before the advent of dinosaurs. Over the course of about 35 million years, the eastern seaboard of the United States saw repeated rises and drops in sea level, which left alternating layers of sediment: first fossilized marine life, then sandstone as the water receded, and then shale when the land was dry. As the water came back, the layers would repeat in reverse. The fossil layers, compacted over time, turned into thick black carbon seamsi.e. coal.
Europeans burned coal for centuries before 1800, but the demand was limited. It was a poor man's fuel, smoky and unpleasant compared with wood. (Queen Elizabeth I banned its use in London while Parliament was in session, so she and her cohorts could avoid the blackened air.) The dawn of the steam engine in the 19th century, and the massing of industry that followed, changed things.
Mining in Tennessee started with blacksmith shops digging out small outcroppings as early as 1814, when one Roane County smithy reportedly used coal heat to make horseshoes for Andrew Jackson's army. The efforts were sporadic and scattered. Small operations sent bargeloads of coal downriver to cities like Knoxville and Chattanooga, to be used primarily for heating. In 1855, the construction of the Nashville and Chattanooga railroad inaugurated the state's coal boom. With trains providing easy access to remote sites, a series of large mines opened as land speculators raced into the territory. In the years up to 1854, Tennessee mines produced a total of only 8,800 tons of coal. Between 1855 and 1861, the state churned out nearly 100 times that amount.
But it was the industrialization of the post-Civil War years that truly galvanized coal mining from Pennsylvania to Alabama. Multinational companies sent survey teams into the Appalachian mountains and began securing huge pieces of landor, more accurately, the coal beneath the land. Using "split deeds," the companies would purchase only the mineral rights on a piece of property, leaving the land itself in the hands of the owner, most often a farmer with little education. While keeping official title might have sounded good to the landownerwho was often a descendent of the original settlersit meant that he had to continue paying property taxes, while the land companies had absolute right to the vast, valuable reserves underground, for which they usually paid pennies per acre.
Tennessee's coal fields, which run along the north and south of the Cumberland Plateau, turned Knoxville and Chattanooga into centers for speculators. As Ronald Eller reports in his comprehensive book Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers, developer C.W. Charlton appraised the region in 1889. "What we need to make East Tennessee the most prosperous and desirable section of the South is capital," he wrote. "That would be a panacea for our financial ills and would disarm poverty of its terrors. It would put us on the high road to wealth...We need hundreds of blazing furnaces distributed over this region, along the foothills of our mountains, lighting up their gorges and developing and utilizing the iron embedded in their bowels...What a magnificent field for capitalists!"
Among the first in Knoxville to exploit that field were two brothers, David and Joseph Richards. They were natives of Wales who had followed many of their countrymen to Pennsylvania before the Civil War. Wales was already established as a mining center of Britain, and when the Richardses migrated South to Tennessee after the war, they took an immediate interest in the region's resources. They founded an ironworks called Chamberlain, Richards, and Co. on the edge of the city, and opened up three mines in the newly created community of Briceville in Anderson County to supply fuel for their furnaces.
Their efforts, and those of others after them, created a small wave of Welsh immigration. Soon, Welsh-speaking miners were populating Briceville and nearby Coal Creek, establishing Welsh churches and social organizations. Knoxville also had a sizable population, enough in 1872 to draw a near-legendary figure. The Rev. R.D. Thomas was a minister and writer who had spent decades exhorting his countrymen to come to the United States. From 1872-75, he was pastor of the Welsh Congressional Church on Atkin Street. During the same period, he published a book called Hanes Cymry America (A History of the Welsh in America), which one reviewer more than 100 years later called "the most important work in the Welsh language ever written in America."
Any kinship between Thomas and the Richards family may have seemed unlikely. The minister was a populist and favorite of the working class who might not have felt friendly toward the coal mine bosses.
"I think there was probably a lot of bad blood between the Thomases and the Richards," says J.D. Bradley, a "semi-retired" Knoxville businessman. But he says it with a trace of ironyR.D. Thomas' daughter, Jennie (one of the first school teachers hired in Knox County), married D.J. Richards, the son of David Richards. They were Bradley's great-grandparents.
Bradley only learned of his family's involvement in coal via archival research. He says it wasn't discussed much while he was growing up, even though David Richards parlayed his fortune into social and political prominence, serving in the state Legislature and earning the nickname "Uncle Davy" from the Knoxville press. (Richards and his son had another historical claimthey were in Ford's Theater the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. D.J. Richards wrote a short book about it years later, in which he described John Wilkes Booth: "This man fell on one side, caught himself, then stood before the audience with a dagger in his uplifted hand [and] cried out, 'Sic semper Tyrannis' and then immediately went in back of the screen or curtain.")
In any event, the Richards family sold their interests to the Knoxville Iron Works in the 1870s to pursue other ventures. Joseph Richards bought a coal tract on Walden Ridge, and also built the first resort hotel in Oliver Springs. Only one remnant of their company still stands: the old foundry, now remodeled as The Foundry restaurant near World's Fair Park. R.D. Thomas moved away from Knoxville, but when he died in 1888, he was buried in Old Gray Cemetery on Broadway.
Few of the subsequent coal operations were as local in scope or ownership. In 1907, a Northeastern syndicate headed by J.P. Morgan bought the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company. The American Association, which founded the city of Middlesboro, Ky. and had mines throughout East Tennessee, was based in London. Black Diamond Colliers, one of the largest and longest-running of the Anderson County companies, was operated by Champion Fiber Company to supply coal to its plant in Canton, N.C.
Both of Kerry Templin's grandfathers worked in the mines. It killed one of them.
"My dad's father died of black lung," says Templin, 38, a trim ex-Marine and currently a fireman at Oak Ridge's Y-12 plant. "He worked in the mines all his life. My mom's father worked in them for about five years."
His mother's father, who's still alive at 94, has told Templin his mining storieshow at the age of 13 or 14, he got a certificate signed by an Anderson County Squire allowing him to go to work underground. The certificates were required for all juvenile miners, but they were awarded almost automatically. Children as young as 10 could work as "trappers," sitting in the dark for 10 hours at a time, opening and closing doors to allow mine cars through.
"Mainly, those kids would go to work with their fathers," says Templin, who (along with Winfrey) is part of a group that set up a small coal mining museum in the Lake City community center. "That's what my grandfather did."
Well into the 20th century, miners worked as contract labor"like sharecroppers," Templin says. They had to purchase their own equipmentusually on credit from the mining companyand were paid according to how many tons of coal they dug. It was ugly, uncomfortable work, slithering into passages sometimes less than two feet high, setting explosive charges in cramped, wet darkness lit by oil lamps or open carbide flames. When the explosives shook the coal loose, miners would excavate it, brace the low ceiling with timbers, and push back farther into the rock.
A partial map of one Cross Mountain mine on the wall of the Lake City museum shows how far those networks could extend. Added to daily from the 1920s through the '50s, it looks like a city street grid. Large passages with names like "No. 3 Main" and "No. 2 East" branch off into long side corridors, which in turn sprout dozens of individual "rooms." Many of the rooms are colored in different shadesblue, red, pink, greenwhose meanings have been lost (although Templin says the blue rooms probably indicate water in the mine). Some have notations signaling dead ends: "Smutty coal, not marketable, w 1" fire clay top," "1/15/42coal rash."
Small towns like Briceville and Fraterville sprang up around the mines, on land usually owned by the coal companies. Miners lived in company houses, some of which still stand along the roads and abandoned rail lines that used to lead to the mine entrances. They shopped at company stores, sometimes using company-issued scrip. (Templin says Tennessee mining companies weren't as predatory as those in Kentucky and Virginia, where miners were sometimes paid only in scrip. In Anderson County, at least, he says, most pay was in cash, with scrip reserved for credit advances.)
Miners' attitudes toward their jobs were complex. Pride in the hard work and the wages it could produce mingled with awareness of its stark dangers, suspicion of the companies that took most of the profits, and resentment of the far-away consumers who benefited. Yorath John Davies, a Welsh native who worked in Anderson County mines from the 1890s until close to his death in 1955, expressed some of that in a song that became a staple of local miners' funerals, "Down in a Coal Mine." A few of the verses:
And when at morn I go to work my daily bread to earn,
It was no exaggeration. Although the Fraterville disaster of 1902apparently caused by the ignition of excess coal dust in the airwas the worst in the state's history, it was followed nine years later by an explosion in Briceville's Cross Mountain Mine that killed 84 workers. You can find memorials to both catastrophes in Anderson County cemeteries. The Fraterville monument is in Lake City's Leach Cemetery, an obelisk bearing a crossed pick-and-shovel insignia above the names of the dead.
The monument is surrounded by a "miner's circle" of individual graves, a series of expanding concentric arrangements of headstones. As you walk out wider and wider, the scale of the slaughter assumes sobering physical proportions. The names and birthdates are all differentGeorge Hill was 24, Paul A. Adkins was 53, James R. Whitten was 46, his son Henry Whitten was 12. But the final date is always the same: May 19, 1902.
"It wiped out a lot of families," Kerry Templin says, surveying the stones. "My wife's grandmother had four brothers and several cousins killed...Slovers..." He scans the memorial. "There they are: Samuel L., Samuel H., John B., James R. Killed every one of her brothers."
Even without big explosions, death in the mines was routine. Roof collapses, machinery mistakes, pockets of methane gasany number of factors could leave families without a wage earner and just a few hundred dollars in compensation from the company. According to a study by the U.S. Bureau of Mines, 1,415 men died in Tennessee coal mines between 1891 and 1939, an average of nearly 30 fatalities a year. Each year also saw hundreds of serious injuries389 in 1937 alonesome of them permanently disabling.
With those conditions, it's no surprise miners were among the most fervent labor activists during the first half of the 20th century. Some of the mine union wars are legendary, as coal companies conspired with public officials and state militias to suppress organizing campaigns. In Kentucky's "Bloody" Harlan County, hundreds of murders during the 1930s were attributable to vigilantes on one side or the other.
Anderson County itself was the site of one of the first miners' labor battles to gain national attention, the well-documented Coal Creek War of 1891 (see sidebar). That was followed in 1903, shortly after the Fraterville explosion, by a miners' strike that led to a gunfight at the Coal Creek train station. In an effort to break the union's strength, the Coal Creek Mining Company brought in scabs from St. Louis and other cities. When a mob of angry miners met the new arrivals at the depot, mine guards started firing into the crowd, killing three men and wounding five more. Gov. James B. Frazier threatened to call in the National Guard to restore order. (The guards were cleared of murder charges.)
In the wake of those dramas, most of Tennessee's mines unionized with relative peacefulness under the banner of the United Mine Workers of America. Even so, there were flare-ups, particularly during the periodic strikes that accompanied labor negotiations.
In April 1941, contract disputes led to a general strike of mines along the Kentucky and Tennessee border. The shutdown created opportunities for the small, non-union mines in the areaand incentive for union miners to close those operations down. On April 14, picketers blocked the road to the non-union Fork Ridge Mine in Claiborne County. Among the union miners was a former county sheriff. When the Fork Ridge operators tried to leave their mine at the end of the day, they found themselves in a stand-off, guns drawn on both sides. After the fact, witnesses would say the first shot came from the picketers' side. When the quick exchange of fire subsided and picketers' cars raced away from the scene, four men were dead: one picketer, one mine guard, and the president and vice-president of Fork Ridge Mine.
Karen Kluge grew up not far from there, in Harrogate. Now a stockbroker with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in Knoxville, she remembers that even in the 1960s, when she was a child, mining disputes always carried the threat of violence. Her father was a supervisor at a nearby coal company. As management, he was a potential target.
"I can remember trouble with the mines, when we had to hide, as a little girl," she says. "I remember, 'Put your lights out, a car's coming up the road, we don't know who it is.' We had to get down, because there was that kind of fear. You didn't know if they were going to shoot you or what. It was a difficult period."
Although Kluge's family never suffered violence or vandalism, there was plenty of reason for caution. In 1970, UMWA presidential candidate Jock Yablonski was murdered along with his wife and daughter at their Pennsylvania home. Yablonski was a reformer running (with the endorsement of Ralph Nader) against president Tony Boyle. Investigators traced the killings to a conspiracy headed by Boyle but carried out largely by representatives and family members of the UMWA's District 19 leadership, based in LaFollette, Tenn. and Middlesboro, Ky. Among those implicated (but eventually freed in a witness protection program, after cooperating with prosecutors) was Silous Huddleston, a LaFollette native and union official. The Knoxville office of the FBI broke major parts of the case.
The Tennessee coal industry has gone through the same ups and downs as the industry as a whole. By World War I, the state's mines were producing more than six million tons a yeara small percentage of the nation's total coal supply, but enough to employ thousands of miners. The economic slump of 1921 pushed demand for coal down, but it recovered quickly and the coal boom continued until 1927.
In that year, coal began a slide downward that marked the end of the industry's "Golden Age." Throughout the Great Depression, small mines closed and large mines pulled back and consolidated. Those trends reversed during World War II, but they were accompanied by increased mechanization that, as it picked up into the 1950s, meant progressively fewer men could mine more and more coal.
However, coal was also losing one of its biggest customers. As railways converted increasingly to diesel power, and were simultaneously robbed of passengers by the surging automobile industry, coal suppliers began to look for new markets. They found one of the largest in their own backyard.
The Tennessee Valley Authority had initially operated its flood control and electricity generation programs hand in hand: its dams held back the waters, which in turn powered its turbines. But by the 1950s, demands for electricity in the modernized South outstripped TVA's hydroelectric capacity. The solution? Coal-fired steam plants. By 1961, TVA was buying 16.5 million tons of coal from mines in Kentucky and Tennessee.
At the same time, new, hotter furnaces allowed the power giant to burn much lower-grade fuel than previously possible. This coincided with trends in the mining industry, which in the post-war years increasingly turned away from expensive, dangerous underground mining in favor of surface strip mining. These operations could produce huge quantities of low-grade coal quickly and cheaplythey sold to TVA for just $2 or $3 a ton. Although the environmental consequences of stripping wouldn't be addressed on a national level until the late 1970s, they were already obvious to local observers by the early 1960s.
In his seminal 1962 book Night Comes to the Cumberlands, an indictment of the complicity between coal and timber industries and local and federal officials, Kentucky lawyer Harry Caudill wrote, "Consequently, the TVA, the mighty benefactor of the Tennessee Valley, has become a gigantic co-partner in the destruction of the Cumberland Plateau...TVA has been able to boast of its cheap and stable charge schedule. Other producers of electric power have struggled to remain reasonably close to its price level. Their consumers have been convinced that in cheap electricity they are receiving the best bargain afforded by the American industrial machine...
"The truth is that cheap and abundant electric power is being bought at a titanic and hidden cost, a cost another generation will pay with compound interest."
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